On-screen, interracial relationships between white women and African American, Latino, or Asian men occur so infrequently that it can be argued that there is an implicit censorship of these unions that demonstrates how certain subjects are rendered outside the realm of what is speakable. Even films that do pair a white woman with a man of color tend to keep the relationship platonic or avoid showing any intimacy in their relationship. For example, interracial weddings are rarely seen or celebrated on-screen, even though weddings are a particularly popular tool used in Hollywood films to end a movie or serve as a backdrop of the narrative. Since weddings legitimize and solidify relationships, the avoidance of legitimizing interracial unions through marriage can be read as a symbolic ban, like the legal ban on interracial marriage overturned in 1967 by the Supreme Court.
Prominent black actors such as Cuba Gooding, Jr., Will Smith, and Denzel Washington have commented on Hollywood’s tendency to avoid the issue of interracial intimacy and the hesitancy of white executives to place a black male lead opposite a white female lead for a romantic story line. When Denzel Washington was asked how people would react to a black man and white woman in bed on-screen, he replied “I don’t know. . . . I wouldn’t do it just for the reaction. If it’s a good story, I’d do it. . . . I haven’t turned down any scenes like that because I haven’t been offered any. So again that’s a question for some guys [waves his arm toward the Hollywood Hills] behind those big gates.” While black male actors are often blamed or rumored to avoid love scenes with a white woman, Denzel Washington, as well as Will Smith and Cuba Gooding, have all acknowledged that it is the filmmakers who make these choices.
In Hollywood today, a black man kissing a white woman is still largely a taboo as far as studio executives are concerned, as evidenced in the large number of movies that pair a black man opposite a white woman that do not include a romantic relationship. Films based on books that contained an interracial relationship, such as The Pelican Brief and Kiss the Girls, altered the story lines from the books they were based on to eliminate any sexual tension or relationship between the white and black lead actors.
In The Bone Collector, Washington played opposite Angelina Jolie, where they did exchange sexual innuendos, yet there was no danger of the two actually having sex since Washington’s character was a quadriplegic who couldn’t leave the house. The Oscar-nominated and popular box-office black actor Will Smith has also been paired against white women in movies such as Men in Black and I, Robot, yet the closest it came to a romantic or sexual encounter in either film was suggestive comments. This phenomenon occurs in a string of films such as Murder at 1600 (1997) with Wesley Snipes and Diane Lane and The Long Kiss Goodnight (1996) with Samuel Jackson and Geena Davis.
As some have argued, Middle-class American family norms include a guarantee against miscegenation and interracial sex is most problematic if it involves a white woman, given the gendered way that white women paired with men of color are often rendered outside the realm of possibility while white men paired with any woman is a possibility.
For example, in the popular 2005 romantic comedy Hitch, Will Smith plays a “love doctor” who helps other men get women to fall in love with them, focusing on his work with an awkward white guy in love with a beautiful blonde. While able to help other men by teaching them his moves, Will Smith clumsily pursues a character played by Cuban American actress Eva Mendes. As Hitch director Andy Tennant argues, “Unfortunately, if you paired Will with a white woman, that would overpower the romantic comedy. It would suddenly become an interracial love story, and that wasn’t the movie we were making.” Will Smith also commented on the racial politics of casting in an interview with a British paper, the Birmingham Post while promoting Hitch overseas:
“There’s sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don’t want to see it. . . . We spend $50-something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up—that’ll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S.”
Therefore, racial policing of on-screen relationships can be tricky business, especially when a black male actor is featured, and the fear of the white producers is that pairing him with a white woman will “overtake” the movie or more likely alienate some, yet pairing him with a black woman would change the film into a “black film.” Rather than acknowledge racism, white directors like Tennant problematize interracial unions and excuse the avoidance of these unions as good storytelling.
Relationships between men of color and white women are rarely depicted as long-term or successful and are often submerged in deviance. Furthermore, interracial sex is used to symbolize a major transformation or turn in the lives of young white women on-screen. This is reminiscent of the way white womanhood was viewed as a potential source of crisis after the Civil War. A number of contemporary movies such as Bad Company, Cruel Intentions, Freeway, Pulp Fiction, and Ricochet include an interracial sexual encounter or relationship, yet it is submersed in a deviant world of crime, prostitution, and inner-city motels.
Too often, interracial relationships symbolize chaos, unevenness, the unknown, fitting right into a postmodern or postpostmodern disarray of lives. Beyond what representations we see, it is more about what we don’t see. Interracial weddings are rarely seen or celebrated on-screen, even though they are particularly popular tools used in Hollywood films to end a movie or serve as a backdrop of the narrative. Since weddings legitimize and solidify relationships, the avoidance of legitimizing interracial unions through marriage can be read as a symbolic ban, like the legal ban on interracial marriage overturned in 1967 by the Supreme Court. There are virtually no films that include a happily partnered white woman and black man within the context of a stable, middle-class world. If a white woman is paired interracially, most often it occurs in a deviant setting, it causes problems, and/or is met with opposition, usually from communities of color who are used to symbolically represent the potential problems.
Protecting white women even in the movies remains a prerogative of the predominantly white male producers who control the film images we see. While the earliest films showed the dangers of interracial sex, with a white woman jumping off a cliff rather than be defiled by a black man, today’s white women who engage in sexual relations with a black man on-screen are also damaged, yet now it is symbolized through drugs, prostitution, and disengagement with school or family.
The representations of interracial unions between black men and white women do little to challenge racial boundaries, and often it is safer to pair a black man with a Latina woman, who is almost, yet not quite, white. Black men can be sexual predators, but they cannot be charismatic sexual partners, especially to white women, as we see in how few romantic movies a prominent star like Denzel Washington has been in. In Hitch, the problem of who to cast opposite Will Smith and the solution of pairing him opposite Eva Mendes shows what filmmakers think will alienate viewers and allows the familiar story to be told of a black man who is sexually savvy and slick teaching a white man how to get a girl without the threat of Will Smith wanting a white woman too (thereby also not posing a threat to the white man who he instead is helping). What emerges is that not only is interracial sexuality involving whites, particularly white women, problematized, it also points to how interracial couplings involving white women and black men, whether fictional or not, are still viewed with distaste in contemporary American society.